At every stage of life, people make decisions that profoundly influence the lives of the people they will become—and when they finally become those people, they aren’t always thrilled about it. Young adults pay to remove the tattoos that teenagers paid to get, middle-aged adults rush to divorce the people whom young adults rushed to marry, and older adults visit health spas to lose what middle-aged adults visited restaurants to gain. Why do people so often make decisions that their future selves regret? One possibility is that people have a fundamental misconception about their future selves. Time is a powerful force that transforms people’s preferences, reshapes their values, and alters their personalities, and we suspect that people generally underestimate the magnitude of those changes. In other words, people may believe that who they are today is pretty much who they will be tomorrow, despite the fact that it isn’t who they were yesterday. In the studies we describe here, we showed that people expect to change little in the future, despite knowing that they have changed a lot in the past, and that this tendency bedevils their decision-making. We call this tendency to underestimate the magnitude of future change the “end of history illusion.”And here is their summary and discussion:
Across six studies of more than 19,000 participants, we found consistent evidence to indicate that people underestimate how much they will change in the future, and that doing so can lead to suboptimal decisions. Although these data cannot tell us what causes the end of history illusion, two possibilities seem likely. First, most people believe that their personalities are attractive, their values admirable, and their preferences wise (10); and having reached that exalted state, they may be reluctant to entertain the possibility of change. People also like to believe that they know themselves well (11), and the possibility of future change may threaten that belief. In short, people are motivated to think well of themselves and to feel secure in that understanding, and the end of history illusion may help them accomplish these goals.
Second, there is at least one important difference between the cognitive processes that allow people to look forward and backward in time (12). Prospection is a constructive process, retrospection is a reconstructive process, and constructing new things is typically more difficult than reconstructing old ones (13, 14). The reason this matters is that people often draw inferences from the ease with which they can remember or imagine (15, 16). If people find it difficult to imagine the ways in which their traits, values, or preferences will change in the future, they may assume that such changes are unlikely. In short, people may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself.
Although the magnitude of this end of history illusion in some of our studies was greater for younger people than for older people, it was nonetheless evident at every stage of adult life that we could analyze. Both teenagers and grandparents seem to believe that the pace of personal change has slowed to a crawl and that they have recently become the people they will remain. History, it seems, is always ending today.